by Carl Schmitt
Carl Schmitt (1888-1985) was a German academic jurist who achieved brief fame and influence in the last months of the Weimar Republic by urging President Hindenburg to use the emergency powers in the Constitution to put down, brutally if need were, the twin rebellions of the Communists and the Nazis.1 His advice was not taken, and the Nazis went on to make a mockery of liberal democracy by using its due processes to seize power lawfully. Thereupon Schmitt applied the maxim, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em”, and stood in a long queue with Martin Heidegger to sign up as a member of the Nazi Party.
Not content to copy Heidegger’s purge of Jews and liberals in his university, Schmitt went further, much further, enjoying the patronage and protection of Field Marshal Hermann Göring while publishing a number of demented attacks on Jews and everything Jewish, especially “Jewish law”—by which he meant Roman law. These crazed outbursts are nowadays fleetingly deplored by Schmitt’s admirers in Europe and the United States as regrettable “opportunism.” But they have nevertheless been republished in full this year in Paris by the French philosopher Yves Charles Zarka in the context of his effort to demystify and demote Schmitt from his unlikely pedestal on the European and American Left. Thanks to Zarka, we can see once again in Schmitt’s learned apology for the Nuremberg race laws how low an educated man can sink.
It is not for his attacks on the Jews, of course, that Schmitt is remembered today, but for several booklets of more interest to political activists than to jurists. The best known of these is The Concept of the Political (1927). In it, as in his other short works, Schmitt showed he was capable of illuminating flashes rather than steady light, with a special gift for the oracular, as in the book’s very first line: “The concept of the state presupposes the concept of the political.” A respectful critic, Gopal Balakrishnan of the University of Chicago and the editorial board of the New Left Review (and of whom more below), admits that Schmitt was protean, but also shifting, inconsistent, a bricoleur of ideas with no fixed doctrine. This may be seen when several of his works are compared but also when various editions of the same work are compared. Successive versions of The Concept of the Political between 1927 and 1963 differ on such vital points as what sorts of issues could become “political”, not to mention that the 1933 edition was, predictably, more openly fascist and anti-Semitic than was later thought suitable.
The central theme of The Concept of the Political is that political life is always and inevitably confrontational, indeed conflictual to the point of pitting one group against another in a potentially lethal showdown. Friend against foe is the mark of “the political.” A dispute can arise in any area of public life, but it gets to be political when one side refuses to back off, to compromise or barter in the manner of parliamentary parties, and instead treats its opponents as deadly enemies. Liberals think all disputes can be settled in their talking shops, or can be converted into either economic disputes that can be settled by the market or into ethical disputes that must be settled in private. But according to Schmitt, the truly political cannot be settled in these ways, and the attempt to deny real politics, moreover, cheapens human life by depriving it of seriousness and dignity. At moments of acute confrontation one man decides who is friend and (more important) who is foe, and he can decide the matter at issue one way or the other. He is, therefore, the “sovereign”, as Schmitt calls him. His decision is not based on discussion or reasoning; it is a pure exercise of political will.
Where does such a sovereign get his power? This is where Schmitt’s overwrought and blood-curdling account of politics strikes a curious note that has caught the ear of dissidents on both the Right and Left down to our own time. He gets it, Schmitt says, from that original political act that set up the particular law-abiding society and the trivia-administering state of today. That original political act may have been the bold, willful declaration of the Founding Fathers in the case of the United States, or of a Bolivar-like Great Liberator or a million-footed beast at a Nuremberg rally in other cases. Schmitt argues that every state is by origin a plebiscitary dictatorship that once authorized a sovereign, and every serious crisis proves that it still remains so. Foundational political energies that liberals imagine have been sublimated in institutions and abstract rights are latent but alive, and can be appealed to in moments of crisis because their founding legitimacy overrules mere legality. This explains Schmitt’s oracular opening: The political came before the state, and can still push the state to one side.
Liberals who defend black-letter law at a moment of life and death struggle, when only the unrestrained exercise of political will can save the day, must be dreaming of a world without violence and conflict, that is, without politics. In an earlier pamphlet, The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy, Schmitt poured scorn on these dreamers and their “government by discussion.” Ask them the question “Christ or Barrabas?” he said, and they pass a motion to set up a committee of inquiry. It is not morality or negotiation that governs politics but sovereign decisions taken in exceptional circumstances, beyond all normative principles. Schmitt says nothing of the content of these authoritarian decisions because that is not what matters to him. What matters is their adequacy to the intensity of the emergency, and their “authenticity”—that is, their correspondence to the will of the people.
This brings us to another curiosity of the Schmittian universe, one that Jean-Jacques Rousseau would have relished. In this universe of the political, the only true democracy is a dictatorship backed by the united will of the people. The cumbersome procedures of “representation” only divide and betray. The people are best seen assembled, shouting “Up with X!” and “Down with Y!”, acclaiming that sovereign leader who had the nerve to decide in an exceptional emergency. It is as though Schmitt had foreseen in the 1920s what was to happen in Nuremberg in September 1935. When he did see it, he applauded it in an essay entitled, grotesquely, Die Verfassung der Freiheit (“The Constitution of Liberty”).
This summary of an ultra-conservative authoritarian political theory might lead one to expect that it found favor only among anxious conservatives in strife-torn Weimar, where it so obviously took shape; that it was accepted, with some refinements, by the Nazis; that it brought its author before de-Nazification tribunals after the war; and that it was deservedly forgotten in postwar liberal democracies. The truth is, roughly, the opposite.
The Nazis were not impressed with Carl Schmitt, for as Oswald Spengler also found out, they had nothing but contempt for intellectuals who offered to do their thinking for them. The Allies jailed Schmitt for a while at the liberation but let him off as a harmless intellectual adventurer. Schmitt was subsequently hailed as a sage and a scholar by some young constitutional lawyers in the Federal Republic before becoming the maître à penser of gilded radicals in Europe and the United States. These borrowings by a wide range of readers, from fascists to Maoists, were made easier by the fragmentary, unsystematic nature of Schmitt’s work. Often they were just borrowing one of his oracular profundities, such as the famous, “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.” But unfortunately, as we shall see, there is more to it than that.
On trial at Nuremberg in 1948, the SS general Otto Ohlendorf said he had opposed Schmitt from the start because his doctrine implied conflict within the Volk, which for Nazis was a mystical unity.
Nothing was more opposed to the views of National Socialism than that doctrine; in reality, in a people all the citizens (Volksgenossen) are part of the people and, even if they differ about certain matters, they do not constitute enemies to be exterminated but compatriots to be won over.
In other words, Schmitt was too far to the Right for the SS.
In fact, Schmitt had adjusted his aim after 1933 and said the Volk was indeed one and undivided; it was the Jews who were the enemy. That still did not satisfy the SS because Schmitt’s was merely a cultural anti-Semitism, not racial and biological like theirs. Schmitt, for his part, found the biological argument too scientific, and he had no truck with natural science.
The SS attacks continued despite Göring’s protection, and Schmitt was obliged to restrict himself to international law for the rest of the war and leave domestic German affairs alone. That, however, made it easier for the Allies to let him off. Schmitt complained about his incarceration that not once was he interrogated by a “real American”, only by a bunch of German Jewish refugees come home to take revenge. His refusal to submit to de-Nazification procedures meant he could never again teach in a German university. So his young admirers had to make the pilgrimage to his native village of Plettenberg in Westphalia, whence for almost 40 years he exercised a certain influence.
They came, to begin with, over the framing of parts of the Federal Republic’s constitution. As a whole, Schmitt rejected that document as a disaster foisted on a defeated and truncated Germany by victorious foreigners. For the lawyers and academics who resented the imposition of liberal democracy by the foreigner, Schmitt just had to recycle his diatribes against the Versailles diktat and the failed liberal democracy of Weimar. It is not surprising that there was a discreetly xenophobic (and specifically anti-American) freemasonry just after the war in defeated Germany. From where the malcontents stood it was easy to launch barbs at a benevolent but armed universalism that just happened to bring palpable advantage to the American interest.
Allegations that the American Right also took ideas from Schmitt after World War II, that indeed there was a veritable conspiracy against liberalism hatched by Schmitt and Hayek (or was it Schmitt and Leo Strauss?), are hallucinations of the looney Left. A close study of the sources, as by Jan-Werner Muller in A Dangerous Mind (2003), shows that the American Right never took much interest in Schmitt. But the American Left did, especially the radical Left.
By definition, that means not a lot of people, but they had a journal, Telos, and a publishing house, Verso. Dependent as ever on European fashion, American leftists could invoke the Italian Schmittiani of the 1980s, who actually included some Maoists, and the considerable attention paid to Schmitt in France, including by the grand master, Jacques Derrida. Schmitt’s value as a reference was inflated by building him an absurd reputation as “the greatest constitutional lawyer of the 20th century.” As a precaution to protect this claim, Zarka says, some compromising, “too-Nazi” texts were hidden and translations were politically bowdlerized.
What could the Left find in Schmitt? Well, for a start, a theory. Part of the Left cannot live without one, preferably as arcane as possible, and when the collapse of communism discredited Marxism they were bereft. Even before the war their luminaries Walter Benjamin and Georg Lukàcs had taken an interest in Schmitt, who had the merit, rare among ultra-conservatives, that he had never criticized the Marxists. On the contrary, Schmitt said that his theory of the necessity of popular authoritarian government explained and justified Bolshevism as well as fascism, Lenin as much as Mussolini. (He was tactless enough to write that in a Nazi periodical.) When he found himself briefly in the Russian zone at the end of the war, he thought the Russians might co-opt him to help build a new German state there.
They didn’t, but Schmitt was salonfahig in Leftist circles because he and the Marxists shared a central doctrine. Schmitt called it the supersession of legality by legitimacy; Lukàcs called it “the cretinism of legality” in the revolution. They both meant that, in a state of exception (such as lasted 12 years in Germany and 60 years in Russia), law—with its rights and protections—is suspended, supposedly by popular agreement. The state is overwhelmed by a popular party and its sovereign leader, and there descends what Georges Sorel (who was alarmed by the prospect) called la nuit juridique and what Schmitt called the exercise of pure political will unrestrained by laws, norms and other abstractions.
Now, this theory is enormously attractive to marginal political activists of all stripes who realize they will probably never live to see a revolution like 1917 or 1933, but who dare claim right now to enjoy enough support from “the people” to disregard “bourgeois law.” For them every mass demonstration, every general strike, every display of “people power” and especially each act of terrorism is an assertion of political power, the constituent power, the state-forming and hence the state-overriding power that stands above mere law. Each such confrontation between a people’s will and the frozen abstraction of mere legality is what is known by the buzzwords “redeeming the political” or the “return of the political” (the latter being the title of Belgian political theorist Chantal Mouffe’s version of Schmitt for small cliques dreaming of large masses).
There is for such readers an intoxicating whiff of revolution about Schmitt, but if they are disappointed (as they have been in the West ever since Herbert Marcuse read the last rites in 1968), then Schmitt had a theory for that, too. In German professor-speak it is Entpolitisierung und Neutralisierung, or, more simply, the decline of the masses. Liberalism, Schmitt argued, had managed to depoliticize and neutralize the live forces in society, so one must cast around for new energies that could “redeem the political.” Like Marcuse, for a time he had hopes for the rebellious students of the 1960s, then for various partisan and guerrilla movements, and even, absurdly, General Salan’s Secret Army Organization in Algeria.
Taking a charitable view, this engrossment with any agitation as long as it is anti-parliamentary, anti-bourgeois and anti-liberal can be seen as a species of romanticism. The search for some occasion for political hyperventilation that will put seriousness back into lives that lack it ends up, because of its undiscriminating infatuations, being politically frivolous. It is at best a cure for the boredom of the ambitious but unimaginative, not an answer to any real social problem. Schmitt’s quest for the redeeming decision, no matter what is decided—like Heidegger’s “commitment” and Sartre’s need to be engagé, no matter what is committed to or engaged upon—is, to put it precisely, political existentialism.
There is a less charitable view, of course. One might hesitate to take it of Schmitt’s radical epigones in the United States, but his own record prompts suspicion: If a society were to split into friend and foe, if those redeeming decisions were to extend to violence and even acts of terror, then at last the state might take the advice that President Hindenburg rejected. A strong authoritarian regime might install Schmitt’s idea of democracy, firmly putting down ideological dissidents (starting with the very ones Schmitt had backed), and proceed to rule with dignity, seriousness and scorn for the legal fictions of liberal democracy. Backing rebels and terrorists in the hope of an authoritarian backlash would not be political existentialism but la politique du pire, a form of betting on the worst.
Well short of that perfidy, the radical Left still draws copiously on Schmitt’s acerbic (and sometimes annoyingly well-founded) attacks on liberal democracy, but often without noticing that his opinions were formed in Weimar in the 1920s. Weimar often teetered on the edge of a putsch if not civil war, its parliament was paralyzed by extreme political passions, and life itself could depend on counting friends and fearing enemies.
But what was simple realism then becomes hopeless melodrama now, especially because the Left also wants to argue that our consumer-crazed societies are de-politicized, lacking passion and seriousness, resigned to leaving the big decisions to the free market. Mouffe charges that today’s liberals, encouraged by the demise of Marxism, have the illusion that “we can finally dispense with the notion of antagonism” because history has “ended.” She thinks we need Schmitt’s unrelentingly conflictual view of politics because “Schmitt makes us aware of the dimension of the political that is linked to the existence of an element of hostility among human beings.” So are we being told that the bloody-minded view of politics is objectively true (as it was perhaps in Weimar), or that it should be preached and practiced in our supposedly somnolent societies? It cannot be both.
Gopal Balakrishnan, who says his book The Enemy: An Intellectual Portrait of Carl Schmitt (Verso, 2000) owes so much to UCLA’s Perry Anderson that he can no longer say “where my thought ends and his begins”, is unambiguous on this point: Our societies are drugged asleep and they need some Schmittian violence to wake them up. People power has been “frozen, neutralized or extinguished in the core regions of world capitalism.” Our parliaments are talking shops, made impotent by venal electoralism and by a narrow-minded consensus around economic policy. We have only “a frothy, money-soaked, sound-bite politics.” He is nostalgic for the exceptional times of Carl Schmitt, “near-revolutionary levels of political tension . . . high politics, winner-takes-all contests for the future”, when
human nature itself was coming into sharper focus in this time out of joint, in this state of emergency. The pathos of this moment, with its immense wars of the spirit, can seem remote and anachronistic in an age of diminished expectations, cancelled alternatives and closed political horizons.
But Balakrishnan does not lose hope. “Lurking behind the contemporary interest in Carl Schmitt is the sense that this present cannot last forever.” So have no fear, chaos will return to liberal democracy, whether in a neo-Weimar and deeply confused Germany, an imploding AIDS-ravished India, or even in a paranoid America that destroys its own civil society before the phantom of global terrorism. This waiting-for-chaos is politics as sadism.
Schmitt and his followers surely exaggerate both the melodrama of political life and the passivity of prosperous, peaceful eras. Not all political adversaries are to be seen as foes, least of all as enemies who pose an “existential threat, proffering mortal combat and death.” On the other hand, people who would reject out of hand Schmitt’s melodramatic cry of “politics is destiny” are not all indolent, mindless pacifists. The picture of liberal democracies governed by endlessly indecisive gasbags unable ever to reach a decision and paralyzed by idealistic laws may have some resemblance to nations that stood by while Hitler seized power and re-occupied the Rhineland, but it bears no likeness to those who eventually smashed the Third Reich and then took on the Soviet Union. Schmitt was putting politics in one basket and law in another: politics and decisiveness for heroes, law and utopian ideals for idle cowards. But everywhere we look in liberal societies, politics and law are inseparable. The most ruthless political ambition soon runs into limits set by law or convention; and behind every piece of legislation there are not only ideals but also interests doggedly defending their advantage.
Schmitt is also wrong at a deeper level. The debate about politics and the law, as conducted in the terms that Schmitt uses, goes back at least to Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s remonstrations with his contemporary, Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes had imagined a state of nature that was all politics—the politics of self-interest—and no law, no obligation. Law came solely from above, from authority, and it established the position of the sovereign. Against that, Leibniz protested that men had never lived in a moral vacuum free of obligation. Indeed obligation, or emerging law, was prior to government, which presupposes it.
This is, of course, the contrary of Schmitt’s dogma that the concept of the political presupposes that of the state, that force comes before the law, which continues to depend on it. No, said Leibniz, there were always “men free of all malice who would unite the better to obtain their common end, as birds flock together to travel in company.” Men do not wait for some sovereign to establish absolute supremacy before moderating their conduct. They “usually hold to some middle road, so as not to commit everything to hazard through their obstinacy”; they show “prudence and moderation” so that “most matters turn out well enough.” Besides, sovereignty was never absolute supremacy, but only comparatively superior power, a merely empirical fact that conferred no majesty.
This position did not require Leibniz to take some unrealistic view of men’s “goodness”—being Doctor Pangloss, as Voltaire would say—only to assert that men’s cooperative instincts are at least as strong as their aggressive inclinations. If they were not, there would be no explanation of human culture, which would have to come from on high, somewhere outside humanity.
Similarly, Schmitt and the political activists who have admired his “decisionism” make altogether too much of the contrast between the norm and the exception in political life. By “norm” Schmitt meant regular law based on agreed abstract considerations and the institutions that apply it almost mechanically. By “exception” he meant the grave emergency that can only be dealt with by a political decision that need have no formal basis beyond the will of the sovereign. To the extent that it corresponds to reality, this is a distinction that has always been familiar to liberals. Their guru, John Locke, taught them that “the Laws themselves should in some cases give way to the executive power.” The rule of law has seldom been understood as the domain of abstract, self-applying rules remote from political decisions (indeed these latter are sometimes taken by robed judges). Most written democratic constitutions have a clause that allows for exceptional executive power in emergencies; in some cases, such as India’s, that emergency power can be quite draconian. There really was no call for Schmitt to hector liberal democracies. Civil liberties advocates are of the view that too much exceptional power is being wielded already, notably in the global war on terror and in measures against illegal immigration. There is certainly little sign that executive power, so often wielded arbitrarily, is withering away.
Where liberals will not follow Schmitt is in arguing that the exception can or should dictate the norm. If an heroic decision taken in a crisis establishes one man as sovereign, he would surely seek to hold on to power; Quinctius Cincinnatus, after all, is honored as a rarity for walking back to the farm after each of his two turns as dictator. Jacques Derrida, who protested at the bloodthirsty, warlike tone of Schmitt’s politics, was particularly incensed at the suggestion that the more an emergency was unusual or improbable, the more decisive its subsequent durable effect on society.
This is not the only point at which Schmitt’s politics seem tailored to the needs of a Latin strong man, the man of exception who comes to power by what he calls an heroic decision and others call a pronunciamiento. Schmitt’s discovery of a “latent dictatorship” in every constitution, his deference before the unfounded, arbitrary decision, and the notion that the exception can dictate to the norm are all music in the ears of a cacique hopeful of greater things. Above all, the doctrine of the legitimacy that surpasses legality is the very stuff of this brand of politics. Not once or twice in Latin nations’ history have military leaders explained that they must, however reluctantly, suspend legality in order to protect the interests of the “true” nation whose legitimate concerns were being neglected by duly elected officials.
These references to a Latin tradition are no mere debating points; they go to the practical meaning of Schmitt’s philosophy. The one place where Schmitt felt at home, more than in Hitler’s Germany and certainly more than in the Federal Republic, was in Franco’s Spain. He spent much time there, where he was always cordially received and honored: Several of his books began as lectures to Spanish audiences, and one of Schmitt’s venerated sources, alongside Hobbes and Machiavelli, was the 19th-century Spanish reactionary Donoso Cortes.
Franco’s regime of clerico-fascism was apparently Schmitt’s ideal of good government. The Caudillo was a Führer, but one whose legitimacy was not founded in some spurious scientific biology of race but in Catholic nationalism. The myth Franco personified, that the Spanish people was a mystical unity, corresponded to Schmitt’s notion of true democracy. After his unhappy experiences with the SS at home he must have noticed that in Spain the fascist movement was constantly kept in check by the army and the church, to the extent that Spanish fascism was referred to as fascism without a fascist movement. Of course that had not been true during the Spanish Civil War, when politics was of the ruthless friend/foe sort Schmitt thought natural. But as the regime sought respectability the movement was silenced in a totalitarian theocracy.
There was one point, however, on which Schmitt made the barons of franquismo uncomfortable. They were after all put in power by a military coup d’état and events had passed just as Schmitt described in his decisionist political theory. But it had become indecent in Spain to say so. The regime now wanted to justify itself not as the product of a brutal sovereign choice, but in terms of the Catholic faith, Spanish patriotism and similar formal “normative” abstractions such as Schmitt scorned. His Iberian hosts must have wished he had learned from his one-time colleague Leo Strauss that some political truths are best kept confidential.
Yet there was no way Schmitt could disguise the fact that his theory was a prescription for violence, and on three separate counts: the friend/foe definition of politics, the sovereign’s arbitrary power, and the democracy based on an ethnically homogeneous people.
The notion that friend-versus-foe politics necessarily entails physical violence is explicit throughout The Concept of the Political. Unless political actors are putting their life on the line, they are not serious, he insists, never shrinking from the admission that this can lead to actual killing and in extreme cases to war. As a Catholic he had to ask what had happened to the admonition to love one’s fellow men. He replied, with some imaginative casuistry, that the public enemy (hostis) is not the hated neighbor (inimicus), so one can respect the foe while cracking his skull. And like Hobbes he allows that there are no permanent enemies, only situations of enmity in politics. (Yet the Jews seemed to be his permanent enemies, for he was still rabidly anti-Semitic long after the war and he never expressed regret for what he had written about them before the war.)
However moderated, the notion that politics is about the active, bitter hostility of groups of men one to the other, ready to lay down life in a common cause, means that the state is born of enmity; it is a unit hostile to all extraneous groups. Hostility is its business, and it was only in later editions of The Concept of the Political that it was noticed to have other functions of a “peaceful, trivial nature”, like education and the economy. (Already in 1938 Aurel Kolnai protested in The War against the West that this was “barbarism . . . tribal subjectivism couched in scientific phraseology . . . group egoism and self-worship.” To say that violence is the meaning of politics is like saying that the meaning of matrimony is killing your wife’s lover. It happens, but it is not the main game.)
Nowadays sympathetic readers on the Left are nervous about Schmitt’s implicitly fanatical politics. Instructed by what we have learned since 1938, Slavoz Zizek noted that Schmitt seemed unable to calibrate enmity, to set a limit to hostility no matter how justified. In Welcome to the Desert of the Real (Verso, 2002) he asked,
Is not the lesson of the last century that even–and especially–when we are caught up in such a struggle, we should respect a certain limit? . . . The twentieth century’s totalitarianism, with its millions of victims, shows the ultimate outcome of following to the end what appears to us a subjectively just action.
Mouffe puts even more water in Schmitt’s wine by translating his “enemy” into “adversary”, and his lethal hostility into “force of argument or symbolic violence.” The return of the political that she preaches in On the Political (2005), which aims to put dignity and seriousness back into our politics, thereupon comes to mean more intense disputes, more confrontation, exacerbated differences in a truly multipolar world. All this would take place within a political community—that is, where there was agreed common ground—and the worst that might happen would be that the adversary might raise his voice. Something like this happened after Sorel wrote Reflections on Violence (1908); he took fright at some of the bloodthirsty interpretations put on his work by real men of action and protested that violence need mean nothing more than forceful expression and “going to the end of one’s ideas.”” Schmitt was made of sterner stuff, and he would have dismissed Mouffe’s adversary politics as the merest liberalism, “government by discussion.”
The potential for violence in Schmitt’s second grand theory, decisionism—the sovereign exercise of arbitrary power—is too obvious to belabor. Franco’s pronunciamiento destroyed countless lives and deprived a generation of the very idea of norms in political life to set against the will of the dictator.
Finally, Schmitt’s bizarre idea of democracy as the communion between a united people and its charismatic leader is a clear call for xenophobia and the expulsion or extermination of minorities. What he called the homogeneity of a people (Artgleichheit, Gleichartigkeit) was a restrictive, exclusive idea at the antipodes of the belief that democracy requires the toleration and protection of minorities. He explicitly approved the Turks’ expulsion of the Greeks in 1922, and his perfervid endorsement of the Nuremberg race laws as necessary to protect German honor, blood and unity from contamination showed his conception of German democracy.
But there is no need to go back so far to measure the potential for violence in Schmitt’s theory. Many Germans are still attached to the ideal of ethnic and cultural unity as opposed to the diversity and multiculturalism accepted elsewhere in the West. And a small number of them are willing to use violence against immigrants to make their point. Even many who are themselves not willing to use violence do not mind so much if others do, or if Turks are never entitled to call themselves European, let alone German. Racism and particularism exist elsewhere, of course, but what is peculiar to Germany is their supposed connection with democracy. That, says Ulrich Preuss, is Carl Schmitt’s real legacy: the belief that “democracy means the command of the unitary will of ‘the people’ over society.” It might equally be the legacy of Nazism. More likely still, it is the continuation of a solid German tradition that, in their times, was embraced by Schmitt, the Nazis and today’s skinheads.
Either way, it is yesterday’s idea. It is pathetic to see Schmitt’s hateful and outdated ideas being taken up as the last word in radical chic by the enemies of liberal democracy. When Schmitt wrote early in Hitler’s reign, “Today it is not the State that determines politics but politics that determines the State”, he was not uttering some timeless profundity. He was simply saying that the Nazi movement would relegate the bureaucracy with its rules and red tape (“norms”) to subservience; which it did. Preuss is right to conclude that Carl Schmitt is not an eternally relevant political theorist, like Hobbes, Locke and Machiavelli. “Rather his significance is clearly bound to a particular historical epoch which is about to vanish.” Let’s hope so, anyway.
1 This article continues a series, begun elsewhere, of essays on the fortunes of celebrated works in political theory. Habent libelli sua fata means that books, especially great ones, can come to lead a life of their own, suffering vicissitudes that might astonish their authors. Earlier essays dealt with Joseph Schumpeter’s Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, Ortega y Gasset’s The Revolt of the Masses, Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West, Frederic Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, Edward Said’s Orientalism, Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Michael Oakeshott’s Rationalism in Politics, Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Extremes and Karl Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies.